Too much reality?

‘Human kind cannot bear too much reality.’ TS Eliot: The Four Quartets.

In a building about fifteen miles North of London 6 people are being held captive. They have had no contact with the outside world for three weeks. They are watched 24 hours a day. For the past 84 days they have been deprived of sleep. They were told by their captors that if they did not comply all their food would be taken away from them. They don’t know when they will next be fed properly, or what will be required of them tomorrow.

I’m talking of course about the contestants in the Big Brother house. The treatment they are receiving, if it was in any other context, would probably be a breach of their human rights. But like the contestants in the dance-off competitions of the American depression, they have all entered into the programme willingly in the hope of escaping poverty or achieving wealth or fame, or at least some significance.

Big Brother housemates are humiliated – but they are humiliated in the name of entertainment…so that’s OK. The same goes for the singers excoriated by Simon Cowell on The X Factor, the contestants ridiculed by Ann Robinson on The Weakest Link or the kids falling off their bikes on You’ve Been Framed. Humiliation as entertainment has always had a place in low-culture from the Medieval stocks to the Victorian freak show. But there is something new going on here.

First, we the public have been given an overt role in the humiliation. We vote in our millions for the people we want to see rewarded or evicted. We watch with rapt attention as their personalities are tested to destruction. Second – and I think this is genuinely new – the producers of the programme are playing an active role in the humiliation. Who is Big Brother after all, but a television production company. The disembodied voice of the duty producer is a key part of the show – offering quasi-psychological help at one moment, denying cigarettes at another. Three “task producers” are employed by the production company Brighter Pictures to design the humiliating activities. The phenomenon of the producer playing a part in the programme – almost always in a God-like role – is a new one. In Channel 4’s Deal or No Deal the disembodied “banker” toys with contestants, tempting them to gamble with fate. In ITV’s X Factor the big star is faux-nasty judge Simon Cowell.

It may not be immediately obvious to viewers that not only does he own the company that makes the programme (the aptly named Syco) but he also has buy-out deals with the contestants for his company to manage them should they become successful. Of course I worry about the impact these formats have on the contributors. Have the producers of Britain’s Got Talent learnt anything from the apparent breakdown of the vulnerable SuBo? Well maybe. But I secretly suspect that they feel the whole incident was little more than a huge publicity triumph for the series. Less publicity went to Sree Dasari, a contestant on this year’s Big Brother, who self-harmed alone in his university hall, apparently unable to cope with the fact that his appearance on the show hadn’t led to… well, anything. The producers, hearing about it, “took him into their care” – care which included putting him on that evening’s episode of Big Brother’s Big Mouth. How long before there is a reality TV death? Well, according to the US website there have already been 11 deaths related to reality series, including the murder this week of “swimsuit model” Jasmin Fiore by her partner Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on Megan Wants a Millionaire. Even American Idol judge Paula Abdul has complained that the show’s producers deliberately allowed her to suffer stress, ignoring her pleas not to allow a stalker to participate as a contestant on the show, because they felt her discomfort would add to the entertainment. What on earth were they thinking? I think we know the answer – ratings.

You see I worry about the human impact have on the production community too. Surely there’s a dehumanising impact on programme-makers who are presented with people – more often than not poor, marginalised or dysfunctional people – and encouraged to stress them in the name of entertainment. Bear in mind that the average age of an employee at the BBC is 27. What does a stint as a producer on Big Brother do to you as a person? Is it possible to manage the equation between the power you have over the participants, the pressure of the all important viewing figures, and the short-term nature of most TV contracts. And having produced TV and radio programmes for the last 15 years I know that I’m not immune.

I worry too about the human impact these programmes have on the viewers. Even the impression that I can alter another human being’s story – detain or release someone, or see them further humiliated or rewarded, just by emailing, phoning or pressing a red button, does something to me that I don’t like. But part of the problem lies in the nature of the medium. Because these stories are mediated it’s hard to remember that these people are not actors playing roles, but real people expressing real joy or pain or hopes or fears.